Late 18th-century British landscape was marked by the accelerated Enclosures of the countryside, which transformed the look and output of the land. Rather than vast, sweeping fields, the countryside was permanently altered by dividing shrubs or hedgerows. Previously communal, this division of land stressed private ownership. Through the Enclosure Acts, industrialized agriculture developed. Enclosed farms turned to monocultural farming or single animal husbandry, for instance, to help increase output. Communal lands, on the other hand, were less organized for production and more for individual subsistence. This practice was common across England, and York was no exception.1
Such Enclosure corresponds, as Ann Bermingham notes in Landscape and Ideology: The English Rustic Tradition, 1740-1860, with the rise of the Picturesque aesthetic.2 This approach muted the effects of Enclosure, both by not representing the physical division of land or how it prohibited the poor access to these formally communal lands.3 Ironically, the visual vocabulary of this genre depicted landscapes in a way that was antithetical to the changes Enclosure endorsed. A nostalgic view, pastoral and unenclosed lands, was proffered by these landscape prints. This view helped to further parliamentary Enclosure because these prints kindled an idea that vast tracks of land were still unenclosed.
Depictions of York contained in the Evelyn Collection dating from the turn of the 19th century reveal the popularity of the Picturesque aesthetic. J. Bourne's York, Sophia Nicholson's Minster from the Foss, and Thomas White's York from Severus Hill highlight the Picturesque genre and how it came to bear on York and its surroundings.
In Bourne's York from 1803, we see the Picturesque aesthetic at work. The viewer is placed in the foreground atop a hilly area with wild grasses and shrubs. Our eyes are directed towards the Minster, which is in the background on the right side. Bourne configures the compositional elements to help lead our eyes to the Minster. Trees frame the left half and the far edge of the right side of the print, obscuring a clear view into York's urban outskirts. The inclusion of the bridge in the left middle-ground and the ship sailing on the Ouse river also helps lead our eye to the iconic Minster. Bourne integrates aspects of the Picturesque in this work. The rural area in the foreground is a perfect viewing spot, with well-placed trees which frame a vision looking toward the Minster. Likewise, being placed outside the city gives the viewer the distanced view, which was favoured by the Picturesque. In providing this distanced view, Bourne further emphasized the Picturesque trope of omitting disagreeable details: there are no markers of industry, its associated pollution and poverty. For instance, rather than a larger vessel used to transport goods, Bourne features a small sailboat in the river and two men exiting a rowboat at the river's bank. These elements elevate a rustic and anti-industrial view of York that excludes negative detail. This York is entirely pleasing and charming.
Nicholson's watercolour, Minster from the Foss, works similarly to Bourne's depiction of York. She integrates Picturesque tropes into her work, mainly through the peasant fisherman who speaks to an anti-industrial ethos. The banks of the River Foss are presented in a pristine and "natural" way: trees, shrubbery, and other plants scatter the banks of the river. The fisherman has unencumbered access to the river as if nature intended him to take up such a spot for his activity. Nicholson also composes the watercolour in a way to give us, the viewer, aesthetic remoteness from what we see, which is typical of Picturesque composition.
Bourne's and Nicholson's depictions of York are examples of the urban Picturesque genre. Neither work includes signs of industrialism nor the Enclosure of York's outskirts that was completed by this time. However, both works feature the city of York and some of its natural surroundings. The presentation of the city and its countryside call upon the Picturesque serenity and elevation of the anti-industrial, "natural" perspective, especially as both include serendipitous places for their viewers to gaze upon rustic York. The inclusion of a city places these works in the hybrid genre of the Urban Picturesque, as the Picturesque usually features singularly rural subjects. However, by turning to the Urban Picturesque, these artists were able to take the tropes of this popular genre and apply it to York and its surroundings. Initially produced mostly for wealthy viewers, these works presented a perspective that despite Enclosure, York retained its rustic charm in both its urban centre and its countryside.
While Bourne and Nicholson omit signs of Enclosure from their works, other artists integrated Enclosure divisions into their compositions but transformed their effect using the Picturesque. Thomas White's York from Severus Hill, for instance, features the borders of enclosed lands via shrubbery that extend around York's immediate countryside. The viewer, placed atop Severus Hill, looks down towards the urban centre set in the background amongst a hazy atmosphere. The Picturesque framing occurs via the trees on the left side of the work, and the angle of the hill, with shrubbery on its right side, which help direct the eye further into the print's background. White's specific placement of the viewer gazing upon York is typical of the Picturesque. This placement implies that the viewer stumbled upon this perfect spot in nature rather than highlighting that it is an artistic construction. Like the other two prints, there are no unpleasant elements to this work. There are no details that point to the negative side-effects of Enclosure, such as removing the poor from their homes and traditional food sources. White's watercolour instead suggests that Enclosure has not done much to alter the countryside, but instead that it is still as perfect as ever.
The Picturesque genre, developed by the British, was utilized during this period of rapid Enclosure in representations of York and its countryside. Artists turned to this genre to present a nostalgic view that was anti-industrial. Picturesque York prints, produced at the turn of the 19th century, helped to further champion Enclosure, however, rather than maintaining remnants of the pastoral countryside around the medieval city. Through the dissemination of these works, art played a role in furthering Enclosure by suggesting that it did not have a significant effect on life as represented in political debates on this policy. For those who had money to buy these works, by artists like Bourne, Nicholson, or White, Picturesque depictions were a sentimental refuge to reflect on a past way of life.
Approaching Evelyn Collection Views
Artists widely used the aesthetic language of the Picturesque across Britain at the end of the 18th and into the 19th centuries. This popular genre came to have a bearing upon the local context of York during this time and had local demand. However, Picturesque York artworks, like prints and watercolours, with their popular visual language, also had a broader appeal across the country. These prints, while taking York as a specific subject, also played a broader societal role as they affected the debates around Enclosure, propelling it forth.4 While spending time in York to create their works, artists such as Bourne, Nicholson, and White also used their artistic sensibility to abstract away from the realities of life in this northern city.5